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The Shrouded Isle (PC) artwork

The Shrouded Isle (PC) review

"Human Sacrifice Simulator 2017"

I generally don’t like playing the “bad guy” in video games. There are a few notable exceptions, of course – Dungeon Keeper among them – but most of the time, if I am given the choice I prefer to play the good guy. I just can’t stomach being an evil prick to anyone, whether they are real or imagined. For this reason, I probably should have absolutely hated playing The Shrouded Isle. Playing the bad guy is mandatory in this case, and I’m not talking about some lovable anti-hero with redeemable qualities. No, you must play as the despicable high priest of the Cult of Chernobog, a ruthless, submissive servant of evil incarnate itself. Your dark god slumbers beneath the waves off the coast of the Isle, whispering in your ear from time to time, demanding that you exercise complete control over the hearts and minds of your followers. They must demonstrate the “virtues” of Ignorance, Fervor, Discipline, Penitence and Obedience to be considered worthy. All the while, you must perform regular sacrifices to sate his thirst for blood and souls.

I dunno about you, but there’s something about being evil – and committing evil acts upon others – that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. If The Shrouded Isle was lacking self-awareness or presented as a mere wish-fulfillment fantasy, it might’ve easily ended up on my shit list. However, there’s a high-minded understanding beneath the surface here – along with a dark sense of humour, if you dig deep enough – that lets you know that the developers knew exactly what they were doing.

You start the game in “year 497”, nearly five hundred years after a cataclysm ravaged the Earth and wiped out most of humanity. According to your scriptures, only the worthy ones – the followers of Chernobog – were saved. But is that the truth? Probably not, as your religion seems curiously fixated on ensuring that knowledge of the outside world is suppressed. But that doesn’t really matter; your followers aren’t getting out of this hellhole anyway. Only three years remain until judgment day – the glorious day when Chernobog will awaken and decide whether the inhabitants of The Shrouded Isle are truly worthy or not. This is foremost on your mind, as you bear no allegiances to anyone except Him. The people milling about in the shadow of your great cathedral are mere cattle to you; they will either get with the program or perish.

It’s just as grim as it sounds, and all the more considering that you will get to know your followers rather intimately. All of them have unique names, portraits and personalities, and lines of dialogue that reflect those personalities. You will get to know each and every one of them, because it is your business to know. You may even come to like them. However, humans are sinful creatures who like to stray from the righteous path, and it’s your job to keep them in line. You do this by knocking on their doors and making subtle “inquiries” about their goings-on. If you do your job right, you can expose sinners so that they can be shunned or sacrificed, whereas the loyal and devout can be rewarded and put to good use.

Keep in mind, of course, that the idea of “sin” and “virtue” in The Shrouded Isle is quite twisted. Certain positive virtues, such as being “Honest” or “Just” are appreciated, just as they might be in any sane society, but virtues like “Masochistic” and “Pyromaniac” are just as valuable, as floggings and book-burnings are encouraged activities. So, if one of your flock happens to enjoy his penitent lashings, or gets a certain pleasure from lighting those bonfires, all the better. But, be wary if you discover that one of your followers is spreading dangerous ideas through art or literature – they should become your prime targets for elimination. Even if that follower is a sweet-looking teenage girl with other admirable qualities, don’t let that fool you. You better sharpen your knife, just in case.

However, subtle inquiries are sometimes not enough, and if you haven’t dug up enough dirt on anyone by the end of the season, you might find yourself in a sticky situation. You see, the dark lord Chernobog – and the people – tend to prefer when the blood of proven sinners drenches the altar rather than that of average joes. Heretics, criminals and perverts that nobody will miss are the preferred candidates, and if you smite somebody just for the hell of it without proof that they’ve done anything wrong, you run the risk of making everybody angry. The noble families in particular may get upset if you’ve sacrificed a few of their sons or daughters without just cause, devout as they may be to Chernobog.

However, religion is a political game, and concessions can be made to ensure that people stay complacent and don’t rebel against your authority. Each season, you will appoint a member from each house to serve as advisor to the church, to aid you in doing the good(?) lord’s work. This is where things get complicated and highly strategic. By all appearances, being appointed to the council is considered an honour, and carefully appointing the right people – and letting them influence the direction of the church for a while – can be enough to keep a dissatisfied house happy or temporarily pacified.

However, it is still your duty to make that sacrifice at the end of the season, and it must be chosen from a rank of advisors that you have appointed. Thus, the best way to expose someone – and get his sinful blood onto the altar on time – is to heap them with responsibilities and watch them work. Whether they zealously perform their sacred duties or hesitate can be enough to reveal if they’re truly devoted to the cause or not. Thus, appointment to the council is a double-edged sword, both a blessing and a curse. For you, it is a dastardly way to expose sinners and bring them out into the open. At its core, The Shrouded Isle is a detective game. This is also evident in the cryptic “quests” that Chernobog will sometimes give you, such as “Find the Teller of Lies!” or “Find the Scarred One, bring him to me!" Apparently Chernobog gets a hankering for the blood of certain individuals from time to time, and you better do what he says.

In terms of structure, The Shrouded Isle is turn-based. You get three “moves” per season, which means you have 36 moves in total. It is not a very long game; a playthrough might range from 2-3 hours if you manage to reach the end. One criticism I could make is that the gameplay is somewhat lacking in content. All you do, really, is click on portraits, reveal traits of your followers, watch as loyalty and virtue numbers go up and down, and do your best to react and keep things in balance. However, there is enough strategy within this simplistic framework to satisfy even the most cerebral gamer. This isn’t a game you can play on autopilot – It's a game of deduction, and it requires the same level of concentration you might apply to a puzzle game in order to make the right moves and make it through to the end.

On that note, however, I personally found the game to be quite easy, but only when I was full of coffee and my mind was sharp. I beat the game on both of my first playthroughs and got the “best” ending, and managed to track down and eliminate all of the major sinners in both games. I'm not sure if I am just really good at it or it just isn’t a very difficult game; I’ve heard varying reports. There aren't any variable difficulty levels, so that's kind of a bummer. However, when I tried playing it when I was half asleep, I failed fast and hard.

Another potential criticism could be made about the game’s graphics. The game defaults to a harsh, dichromatic colour scheme of yellow and blue that has reportedly caused nausea in some people. The colour scheme be changed in the options menu, but there are very few alternative choices available. I found that all of them were absolutely hideous or harsh on the eyes except for the “Cremation Ashes” scheme, which effectively turns the game black and white. I found this was the only way I could play the game (and my screenshots reflect that). While I think the dichromatic style was a brave stylistic choice, it was not without risk, and I think it could have been handled a bit better. Somebody on the Steam forums suggested RGB sliders for this; that's not a bad idea. The developers have hinted they are still working on the game, so maybe that will come later in a patch.

Aesthetically, though, that’s really the only thing wrong with The Shrouded Isle. The art style itself is hauntingly beautiful, the cutscenes are well done, and the portraits of the characters are expertly drawn. The soundtrack and sound design are also absolutely incredible. This game is appropriately dark, somber, creepy and atmospheric. The style has been compared to Darkest Dungeon, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. I would be interested to play more hand-drawn lovecraftian-themed games like this, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I was amazed at how much fun I had with The Shrouded Isle, though perhaps “fun” is not the precise word. I found myself repulsed at every despicable act my high priest made; horrified every time I had to sacrifice someone who didn’t deserve it, yet I remained intrigued by everything that this immersive, dark tale had to say. It is a snapshot of organized religion at its worst, a critique of how systems of authority work, and a comment on how stupid we are for falling for them. It somehow feels chillingly relevant in the new and confusing "post-truth" world we now inhabit, a world full of competing and incompatible orthodox ideas. What if one of them won? What if we lost our freedom of speech for good? The future might look a bit like The Shrouded Isle. Humanity has been there before, and if you think we couldn’t possibly sink back into that kind of medieval thinking again, maybe you should read the news. One doesn’t have to look far back in history to find examples of it, such as when the Taliban destroyed the 1500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan for the sake of preserving their followers' "virtue" of ignorance.

The truth is that totalitarianism and theocracy have raised their ugly head throughout history with disastrous consequences, and The Shrouded Isle is there to calmly remind us of this. It is a dark and twisted tale, yes – But no more twisted than we are. It is a dark reflection of ourselves and our history. And it is so brilliant, original, and beautiful in its execution that I have no choice but to give credit where it’s due.

EDIT: I lauded a lot of praise on this game when I wrote my original review, but then the developers added the "Sunken Sins DLC," which is not actually a DLC, but a mandatory update that turns this brilliant piece of socioreligious storytelling into, for lack of a better description, a disease management sim. The addition of "afflictions" causes all of your villagers to inevitably get sick, and you will be scrambling to cure them throughout the entirety of an extended five-year playthrough. This newfound focus on curing afflictions completely overshadows the core of what the game is supposed to be – that is, the "detective work" performed by the high priest to expose sinners and sentence them to death. Instead, the ultimate goal is now to transform all of your followers into hideous mutants that are immune to illness. If you manage to survive the entirety of the five years while doing this, good for you – The RNG gods have smiled upon you. Either way, it's a tedious process that lacks any sort of strategy. Every action you take is out of necessity rather than choice.

For a time, the developers allowed the original version of the game to be played by accessing it through the Betas menu in Steam, but as far as I can tell, that has now been removed. The option is still there, but it will not properly install if you try to apply it. It's a shame, because that is the way this game is really meant to be played, and now it's gone forever.

In short, this was a great game that was summarily ruined by a mandatory update that brought nothing of value. I cannot recommend it in its current state, and unfortunately that is not likely to change.

EDIT 2: User "Germ" shared an interesting hack (see below) that allows you to play the original version. I would recommend giving it a try if you decide to play this title.


Nightfire's avatar
Featured community review by Nightfire (August 29, 2017)

Nightfire is a reclusive dragon who lives in a cave with internet access. Steam ID here.

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Germ posted June 08, 2019:

This is an interesting review. I bought it after reading.
I got version 1.2 of the game (doesn't say Sunken Sins on the title screen) by going to the steam console (steam://nav/console) and entering:

download_depot 501320 501321 2540233656976390798

The console will show you where it's saved on your PC and if you launch the .exe from that folder it will be that version. Hope that was helpful, I look forward to playing it as you originally reviewed.
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Nightfire posted June 11, 2019:

Interesting hack! Thanks for sharing it. It's a bit sad we have to do all that just to play the original version, but at least it's still available. I will give it a try tonight.
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Nightfire posted June 11, 2019:

I tried it, boys and girls, and it works! Thanks again, Germ. Now I can play this game again! :)

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